you ever wanted to get away from crowds and seek solitude in
some mysterious faraway place, just you, a partner or two, and
your horses? The West still offers places like that, but you
must know how to take care of yourself and your horses in these
Lee Raine, her son, Scott, and I completed an 18-day backcountry
trip during December 2002 and January 2003 in the Desert National
Wildlife Range northwest of Las Vegas, Nev. We camped with two
dogs and three horses, 25 miles from the nearest water source.
Here I’ll discuss our trip and provide knowledge you can use
from our experiences.
Hard-core horse camping
requires a few special skills and tools.
First you must have sound, well-shod horses,
because you might encounter sharp, abrasive terrain and loose,
poor-quality footing. Bring an extra set of horseshoes, nails,
a shoeing outfit and know how to fix a loose or lost shoe in
case of an emergency.
Suitable mounts must be able to handle rocky
terrain and steep country. If they’re not accustomed to mountains
and rocks, horses can take up to 3 months’ use in that terrain
to become familiar with the conditions.
from low elevations require at least a week to acclimate to
the mountains. Horses should be legged up before you leave.
Build up to riding several miles a day for a week or so before
Also, hobble training is a must, because
vegetation suitable for tying is sparse.
Perhaps one of the most
important components of our trip was the water arrangement.
The Desert National Wildlife Range offers a few water catchments,
but water is scarce and critical to the wildlife, requiring
horseback riders to carry their own water.
We transported water for our horses in two
65-gallon plastic barrels, hauled in the horse trailer, and
watered the horses with 5-gallon plastic pails. We refilled
our water supply three times during the 18 day period.
This required a round trip of 50 miles to the Corn Creek refuge
station where water was available.
siphon water from the barrels, we dug a hole in the ground large
enough to accommodate one pail, and siphoned water from the
barrels with a 10-foot piece of garden hose. The below-ground-level
pail makes siphoning easier and allows you to tip the barrel
and use every last drop of water.
To start the siphon, place the hose almost
to the bottom of the water barrel, put the loose end in your
mouth, and suck the water until it starts flowing into the pail.
The lower you drop the hose toward the 5-gallon pail, the better
the siphon works.
Before you begin a trip of this kind, expose your horses to
drinking from pails, because they’re often hesitant about drinking
from unfamiliar sources. The same is true for drinking from
streams or ponds. Patience is very important; wait until the
horses relax and drink. Eliminate distractions while your horses
drink; otherwise they could go without water for extended periods
of time and become dehydrated, which can lead to colic.
For our own use, we carried four 5-gallon water jugs that we
refilled when we refilled our horse water supply.
hauled certified, weed-free alfalfa-grass-mix hay (most horses
require 25 pounds of hay daily) and several 50-pound sacks of
complete-ration horse pellets. We fed two 11-ounce cans of pellets
in nosebags on the mornings we rode. The pellet ration contained
quite a bit of cracked corn for heat, which was important in
the cold weather. Our horses held up quite well with this ration
and didn’t loose any obvious weight.
Providing enough water is especially important
when feeding this much roughage combined with the concentrated
pellet ration and hard riding.
from nosebags offers several important advantages. The bags
reduce waste and are great training aids for exposing green
horses to having straps over their heads and behind their ears.
Hard-to-bridle horses often overcome the behavioral issue after
using nosebags. Be aware that most horses want to drink immediately
after eating pellets or grain, so remove the nosebag around
water sources, or the horses might try to drink with the bags
in place. Nosebags should have breathing holes so that the bag
can drain if a horse does get to a water source with the bag
of us camped in the tack room of a four-horse aluminum horse
trailer and placed our bedroll on the bed platform. The other
person slept under an umbrella tent that we also used for cooking
and eating. A teepee tent stowed horse rations and extra supplies,
and we stored hay on top of the horse trailer to avoid loose
horses getting into feed placed on the ground.
We cooked with a propane camp stove, used
propane lanterns for light and heat, and propane space heaters
warmed the tent while we ate. Allow plenty of ventilation while
using lanterns, stoves, and heaters. Never leave them on while
you’re sleeping, or if they’re unattended to prevent fires or
Ice chests, placed on the tent’s north side
in the shade, housed our perishable food. We also ate canned
goods and cooked stews, etc. in a Dutch oven. We took canned
goods and snacks for horseback lunches.
Horse use depended upon
what we saw with our binoculars and spotting scopes. Some days
we rode hard, on other days we rested the horses. After 2 days
of hard riding in rocky terrain, our horses became foot-sore.
You can save your horse’s stamina and soundness
if you get off and lead him down steep or rocky slopes instead
of riding down. Downhill grades are much harder on a horse than
We secured our horses
to a 100-foot, climbing-rope highline (which offers little stretch)
strung between two rock outcroppings. We spaced the tie loops
so that one horse couldn’t reach the others while feeding and
tied their halter ropes to the loops with bowline knots. You
can also use metal rings to tie horses to the highline.
The highline should be at least 6 feet off
the ground. Tie the halter leads so that the horses’ heads can
just reach the ground. This alleviates the chance of them tangling
in the lead ropes while eating.
We didn’t tether our
horses to the line at night, because there was too much risk
for them to get into trouble by being close together. Instead,
we tied the horses to Joshua trees close enough in proximity
that they could see each other and feel comfortable, but not
where they could fight. Certain areas and terrain necessitate
the use of tree savers when tying horses. Tree savers are wide
straps with round rings attached that can be secured to the
tree to prevent damage from a rope. Lead ropes or tie
lines can then be tied into the rings. Also, be careful
that your horse doesn’t paw or damage the root area of a tree.
Horses that are used to being tied do not usually paw much.
Practice tying your horse up at home in a place where the horse
is comfortable and can see other horses. Often they will
paw if they cannot see other horses. If a horse insists
on pawing, hobbling is a good solution.
Tying to the trailer is also an option. We
chose not to, because two of us slept in the trailer’s tack
room, and horses tend to make too much noise during the night
to allow sound sleep.
When tying your horse for the night, secure
the rope above shoulder height and on a short lead, just where
he can hold his head comfortably. If you tie low to the ground
or on a long lead rope the horse can step over the rope and
become tangled, causing a wreck.
Tying on the Trail
remember to secure your horse when you dismount on the trail.
If you stop and tie or hobble up for a while,
remember to loosen the cinch a little and give your horse some
air. This helps prevent saddle and girth sores that can occur
when a saddle is cinched tightly for extended periods of time.
However, the equipment should remain secure enough that the
saddle won’t roll under the horse’s belly and create a dangerous
Again, make sure you tie the rope above the
horse’s shoulder and on a short lead, just where he can hold
his head comfortably. The horse doesn’t need to be able to eat
while tied during the ride.
Before you remount, check the blanket and
pad placement and tighten the cinch.
If a horse breaks loose, he’ll probably head
for the horse trailer where you unloaded or back to camp where
he’s been fed. Our horses are all branded, so we have
permanent, easily visible identification in case they are lost.
A photo of your horse can also be helpful.
The weather can be extreme
in areas such as the Desert National Wildlife Range. We experienced
temperatures as low as 16 degrees Fahrenheit at night and up
to 70 degrees F in the afternoon.
Dress in layers of clothing, including hat
and gloves, starting with a lot of clothes in the morning and
removing layers as the day progresses. Head covering is particularly
important since 80% of body heat can be lost from an uncovered
head. Goose down, polar fleece, and wool are good fabric
choices. Bring one layer of waterproof clothing for stormy days.
Our horses were haired-up, with good winter coats. If
your horse is not used to being out in the elements, you could
blanket them at night.
Desert National Wildlife
Range rules require all dogs to be on leashes or chains. Train
your dogs to be tied up for extended periods of time if you
include them on the trip.
Coyotes were a concern in our camping area,
so we kept our dogs inside the horse trailer with appropriate
food and water at night and when we were hunting. The cold weather
alleviated concerns about overheating and dehydration, but opening
windows in the horse section of a trailer can provide ventilation
on warm days.
wild country, there are no defined trails, so you must read
the terrain to find the easiest way through. Terrain-reading
skills come from experience and riding horses in rough country.
Look for game or cattle trails. Wild game
will show you where to go if you read their sign – tracks, droppings,
trails, etc. Always pay attention to landmarks to find your
way back to camp.
are essential for packing items on the trail. Here are a
few things to make sure you pack before leaving camp.
First-aid kit (horse and human)
Fire-starting materials (lighter, matches, candle, etc.)
Canteen with water
Shoes, nails, and hammer Hoof pick
Desert National Wildlife Range
The area Lee Raine,
her son, Scott, and I camped covers more than 1.5 million acres
(about 2,300 square miles) in southern Nevada. All roads in
the Desert National Wildlife Range are primitive, and ordinary
passenger vehicles aren’t recommended. The area combines the
Mojave Desert’s ecosystem with the Great Basin in a vast dry
The western portion of the Desert National
Wildlife Range contains the Nellis U.S. Air Force Test and Training
Range. The Nellis Range area, where we camped, is closed to
the public except by special permit during a period over the
Christmas and New Year holidays, when military maneuvers are
usually suspended. The remainder of the Desert National Wildlife
Range is open year-round.
Desert National Wildlife Refuge
4701 North Torey Pines Drive
Las Vegas, Nevada 89130
A version of this article appeared in
October 2003 Western Horseman Magazine.